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Mike Lopresti | | March 19, 2014

Lopresti: Opening Night sets tone for NCAA tournament

NC State's T.J. Warren

DAYTON, Ohio -- One night in the NCAA tournament. Opening Night, matter of fact. What the event can always use is a proper tipoff, with drama and emotion and a few oddities.

Opening Night was ... NC State telling the critics who questioned its at-large invitation to take a hike. “I think we showed that we should be in the tournament,” Tyler Lewis said after the 22-13 Wolfpack blew past Xavier 74-59. “And after this game, and here on out, we’ve just got to keep proving them wrong.”

Added T.J. Warren, after scoring 25 points, “We’re not going to worry too much about what they’re saying. Continue to play our game and rack up wins.”

Opening Night was ... Albany head coach Will Brown, standing in a hallway after his team’s victory against Mount St. Mary’s, recounting his team’s hectic week and the arduous assignment that comes next: No. 1 Florida on Thursday in Orlando, Fla.

“We’re going down there,” he said, “to challenge them.”

His team has been busy. Pulling out the America East tournament title as the fourth seed on Saturday, listening to Selection Sunday, getting to Dayton and preparing for Mount St. Mary's on Monday, holding on to win Tuesday, then jumping on a midnight charter to fly to Orlando “and getting in who knows when,” Brown said. And then facing mighty Florida on Thursday, a thousand miles away and only 44 hours after they walked off the court in Dayton.

“It’s a good thing. We need to enjoy it,” Brown said. “We shouldn’t be complaining about one thing.”

Opening Night was ... 12,077 showing up to watch two games that had no teams 48 hours before.

Opening Night was ... the first individual star performance of the tournament, with Warren’s 25 points, after a cold-shooting first half. “Eventually,” said the ACC player of the year, “the shots are going to fall.”

It helped erase the memories of the Wolfpack’s NCAA tournament loss in this same building last year. Warren scored four points that day against Temple. Now NC State is on the move, 40 years after the historic Final Four upset of UCLA.

Opening Night was ... Mount St. Mary’s Sam Prescott, having laid it out for 40 minutes, enduring the bittersweet finality that all seniors feel after a tournament loss: “It’s been a long journey since I started college basketball. And to make it to this type of stage, it’s tremendous. Get the type of exposure, experience the lights, it’s been a great ride.”

Opening Night was ... Albany winning a game that zig-zagged like the season throughout the land, with statistics that would make a computer choke. The Great Danes opened the game with a 21-2 run. Then Mount St. Mary’s answered with a 21-2 run. So they started over again at a 23-23 tie.

“We’re the only game on television,” Brown said, “so we wanted to keep the viewers interested.”

Albany had 14 turnovers to Mount St. Mary’s four, and was outscored in bench points 21-0. Yet won. Mount St. Mary’s shot 37 3-pointers, or two more than it had 2-point attempts and free throws combined. Its leading scorer, Will Miller, had all 21 points on 3-pointers. He never took a 2-point shot in 12 attempts.

“I love shooting the 3, [but] 37 was bit high even for my liking [Tuesday],” Mount St. Mary's head coach Jamion Christian said.

Opening Night was ... NC State guard Cat Barber trying to play through sickness because he did not want to miss the moment, and vomiting in the locker room at halftime.

Opening Night was ... a father wearing the University of Albany hoodie, standing behind section 105, with a travel story to tell. Most parents would do nearly anything to watch their children play in the NCAA tournament. Gregg and Catherine Rowley had just flown 8,000 miles.

They had bought their tickets back home in Sydney, Australia, having no idea when sons Sam and Mike and the rest of the Albany team would be playing, or when or against whom. They guessed Dayton. If they had to change -- and we all know how understanding and reasonably priced the airlines can be about that -- they would. They found out just before they boarded in Sydney, they had guessed right.

“We figured,” Gregg said, "we had to get to the U.S. first.”

The Rowleys traveled nearly 24 hours and made it to the arena with time to spare, and jet lag to ignore.

Opening Night was ... the chair of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Committee sitting at press row, perhaps a more relaxed spectator now that the selection ordeal is behind him.

“Very positive. It was an electric atmosphere, a full house, we had four really good teams competing and two great games,” Ron Wellman said of Tuesday night. “It’s an indication of what this tournament can be over the next three weeks.”

The outside world had had two days to fire away at his committee’s work, and while there was backlash, there had been no titanic explosion.

“They were totally intent on making really good decisions,” he said of the committee. “There was not any wavering, not any distractions. The intensity in that room was fabulous.”

And the emails from the public he’s been getting since? “Some you’d rather not receive, but most of the fans are reasonable. They give you their opinion in a very professional manner. I don’t mind receiving them at all. They’re passionate fans, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

The two most common complaints: No SMU in the field, and Louisville’s No. 4 seed. But that will fade now. The games are under way.

Opening Night was ... Gregg and Catherine Rowley changing their airline tickets. They’re headed to Orlando. So are Albany and NC State, flush with victory but now with higher seeds just hours ahead. March is rolling.

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